Thursday, February 4, 2010

What IS character, anyway?

You're probably wondering what a barely-clothed, lumberjack-looking guy dressed as a hot-air balloon has to do with character (other than the obvious "being a character"). Believe it or not, an awful lot.

Meet Nate.

Nate is married to my friend Lisa, who I've known for nearly 14 years -- ever since we had a communication theory class together my first semester of college. We even eventually worked together at the local newspaper here in Mount Pleasant, Mich.

Lisa and Nate -- a bartender at The Bird, a popular local bar -- married a couple of years ago. I've since come to know him a bit, mostly through Facebook.

One thing I've learned -- and really admire -- about Nate is that he is very dedicated to raising funds for Special Olympics Michigan. Each year, he does something that is both nutty and gutsy: He participates in the Polar Plunge, an event that involves jumping -- in costume -- into a frozen pond in the middle of February after collecting pledges. Nate personally raises thousands of dollars annually, collecting pledges from friends, family, Bird customers and even strangers. And last year's Polar Plunges statewide raised well over $250K for Special Olympics Michigan.

Back to Nate ...

This past fall, something very cool happened to Nate; he was selected to appear on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and in October he and Lisa flew to New York with several members of their family for the taping of the show. And, of course, no one knew what happened except those who were there, as Nate, Lisa and their family diligently upheld the show's confidentiality agreement.

Flash forward a few (almost four!) months. Nate recently announced that the show would be airing today (Feb. 4), and The Bird would be hosting a "watch party" for the show's local airing at 12:30 p.m. Ever the fundraising genius, Nate decided it should be a Polar Plunge fundraiser. He set up an event page on Facebook, and he and Lisa invited pretty much everyone they know. The Morning Sun, the local newspaper (where Lisa still works), published a Q&A feature on Nate on Monday. The buzz has been building among Nate's friends for some time and among the community at large all week long.

And, of course, the questions about the show itself were mounting. How did Nate fare? Did he win a bunch of money? Have he and Lisa just been biding their time and waiting for the show to air so they could quit their respective jobs and travel the world with their family?

Today, a lot of people -- I can't even estimate how many -- showed up at The Bird to see Nate on television and find out the answers to those questions, and a lot of them dropped generous cash in the Polar Plunge collection jar. That alone was impressive ... and a great testament to our community.

When Nate came on the screen late in the show, the place went wild ... especially once Meredith Vieira started asking him about his "Big Sexy" nickname and perhaps even doing a bit of her legendary flirting (although nothing quite on the level of this classic “Millionaire” clip on Youtube ... ha ha ha).

Then came the questions. And Nate was rocking them, no lifelines needed. But, as it turned out, pasta would prove to be his kryptonite. He incorrectly answered the $5,000 question -- the "guaranteed money" question -- which was regarding the name of hollow, tube-shaped pasta. While the correct answer was penne, Nate answered linguine (or was it fettucine?) ... and he ended up winning $0. (By the way, he later explained that he thought penne was angel hair pasta ... and that makes sense to me, as I probably only know what penne is because I cook it.)

Once I recovered from my shock over the fact that Nate actually hadn't won a dime (for a variety of reasons, I was pretty convinced going into today that he'd won a nice chunk of change), it occurred to me:

This guy is so committed to his Special Olympics fundraising that he planned all of this despite the fact that he didn't do well on the show.

Swallowing your pride and inviting the world to share in a not-so-shining moment because you're focused on the greater cause -- the attention and funds that your moment in the spotlight could bring to a philanthropy you care about? That, my friends, is character. And it's a pretty darn rare variety of it.

After the show ended, Nate changed into an "I'm with stupid" shirt emblazoned with an upward-pointing arrow as Lisa's jukebox selection -- Daniel Powter's "Bad Day" -- blared on the sound system. (Lisa and Nate are hilarious that way.) Pulling Nate aside, I told him how much I admire what he did, because I do. I wish I could say I'd have done the same thing if I were in his shoes, but I'm not sure I could've. And for that, Nate Jonaitis, I salute you.

NOTE: This year's Mount Pleasant Polar Plunge is coming up on Feb. 20. You can donate, specifically in support of Nate, at his fundraising Web site, which is hosted by FirstGiving.

(Polar Plunge photos: Nate Jonaitis's Facebook page)


  1. Great story. Well written and very enjoyable. Keep up the great work.

  2. Thanks, Dave! Features and human interest have always been my loves when it comes to writing! :)